Fourteenth Colony: The Forgotten Story of the Gulf South During America’s Revolutionary Era by Mike Bunn. (Montgomery, AL: NewSouth Books, 2020)
In Fourteenth Colony, Mike Bunn sheds light on the forgotten British colony of West Florida. The book seeks to “put West Florida back on the map of our historical consciousness” (page xi). Comprising parts of present-day Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Florida panhandle, West Florida existed as a frontier province along the fringes of the British Empire. During the Revolutionary War, Britain fought Spain in the Gulf South over control of West Florida. As such, West Florida remained in British hands from 1763 to 1781. Organized in chronological order, Bunn provides a narrative of West Florida that is intended to serve as an overview of this “dramatic interlude in Gulf South history . . . [told] from the viewpoint of those who worked so diligently to establish it” (xii). Indeed, Britain’s viewpoint is the main perspective in this book, but Bunn shifts perspectives during the Gulf Coast campaign to offer the Spanish standpoint as they invaded West Florida.
Bunn spends the first half of the book detailing the history of West Florida from its acquisition, settlement, and development right up until the American Revolution. At the beginning of chapter one, Bunn provides a brief discussion of the first explorers and settlers of the West Florida region prior to the colony’s establishment, before moving on to cover Britain’s acquisition and early forays into the province. Chapter two deals with West Florida’s government. Because West Florida was a new colony in 1763, its government “had to be built from scratch” (24). Unlike some of Britain’s other American colonies, West Florida’s survival rested entirely on Parliamentary grants (24). In essence, West Florida’s political scene suffered from “in-fighting, rivalry, and factionalism which it had to overcome to function effectively. At various times, it could not, and hence it did not” (42). Because of a lack of funding, West Florida had trouble enforcing law and order in the backcountry (57). Indians proved to be another matter for the colonial government. It was estimated that 15,000 Native Americans lived around Pensacola, the colony’s capital (44). Considering that the province’s population was less than 3,000 European inhabitants, Indians proved to be a serious force to be reckoned with (44). Good relations with the natives was a paramount fact of life for British officials and for the colony’s survival.
Since the colony’s conception, British officials worked to develop and settle West Florida. Land grants were the primary means by which settlers could obtain West Florida land (62). Despite government attempts at encouraging settlers to migrate to the region, West Florida’s population remained small and scattered (82-83). A large portion of its citizens “drew their living from the land” (110). For residents, West Florida was hot, humid, and dangerous (84). Diseases carried away many new arrivals (85). The colony’s most prominent population centers were nothing more than underdeveloped villages (90). According to Bunn, “West Floridians lived in an inherently provincial and for the most part impoverished world” (128). During the Imperial Crisis, West Florida remained detached from the anti-British movement. The Stamp Act produced the only stir against Parliamentary authority and even then, opposition was not treasonous by nature (130-131). In 1774, West Florida was invited to send delegates to the First Continental Congress (134-135). Throughout the Revolutionary War, West Florida became an asylum for loyalists escaping the rebellion (136-137). It was not until 1778 that an American military expedition under James Willing raided several West Florida settlements. Ending that same year, Willing’s expedition, though brief, brought the Revolutionary War to West Florida. In the following year, the Spanish followed up on American interests in West Florida. With Spain’s entry into the war in 1779, Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Galvez launched an invasion of the colony. The last three chapters of the book deal with West Florida’s conquest by Spain. Between 1779 and 1781, Galvez managed to successfully bring Britain to her knees in the Gulf South. After the siege of Pensacola in 1781, West Florida officially became a Spanish province.
At length, West Florida existed as a British province for eighteen short years. In the present day, West Florida’s role in the United States’ Founding Era is almost forgotten. Easy to read, Bunn’s narrative is engaging, well written, and full of interesting material. As an introductory book to British West Florida, Fourteenth Colony is successful. While the book certainly does a good job illuminating all the important aspects of British West Florida, it does leave out some minor but significant information. For example, no mention is made of Texas’s contributions to feeding Galvez’s army as it invaded West Florida. Despite the omission of this obscure detail, Fourteenth Colony is still a smart, well-researched book.